The Plane

Typhoon taxying 439 Sqdn RCAF, Eindhoven, probably spring 1945. Photo: © Imperial War Museum

From its formation in November 1942 to its disbandment in August 1945, 197 Squadron flew only one type of aircraft – the mighty Hawker Typhoon. Mighty, because it was a) enormous for a single-seat fighter in its day; b) extremely powerful and c) armed with devastating weapons. It created new standards for ground attack aircraft.

From the same stable that produced such thoroughbreds as the Sopwith Camel and the Hawker Fury, the Typhoon was conceived in 1937 as the successor to the Hawker Hurricane, which was just entering service with the RAF. It was to be powered by an advanced in-line piston engine, the Napier Sabre, which promised to deliver 2,000hp – twice the power of the Hurricane.

First flown in early 1940, the development of the Typhoon was delayed by the Battle of Britain and problems with the 24-cylinder, twin-crank shaft, sleeve-valved Sabre engine. It was not until September 1941 that Typhoons – the RAF’s first aircraft capable of more than than 400 mph in level flight – were delivered to an eager Fighter Command. Unfortunately, despite its electrifying turn of speed at low-level flying altitudes, the Typhoon proved disappointing in its envisaged role as an interceptor since performance above 15,000 feet was inferior to that of the Spitfires it was scheduled to replace.

Problems for the Typhoon mounted, as the highly complex Sabre engine continued to give trouble. And just as the Typhoon was becoming operational in mid-1942, a serious airframe fault became evident: growing numbers of Typhoons shed their complete tail assemblies in flight with almost invariably fatal results for their pilots.

Hawker Typhoon OVZ R7681. One of 197 Squadron’s first Typhoons, a machine gun-armed Mk. 1A, used for conversion to the type, late 1942 / early 1943. Photo: unknown
Flying Officer Johnny Rook taxiing at B. 89 Mill Airfield, NL, in March 1945. Photo courtesy Johnny Rook
Sqdn Ldr “Jacko” Holmes in the cockpit of his Typhoon at Tangmere, West Sussex, UK, October 1943. Photo © Imperial War Museum

Late in 1942, just as 197 Squadron became the eleventh squadron to be equipped with the Typhoon, it seemed inevitable that the entire Typhoon programme would be scrapped. This was however averted, due mainly to two factors. The first of these was the increased frequency of German fighter-bomber attacks on English south-coast towns. The Typhoon was Fighter Command’s best available weapon to counter these intruders, which crossed the Channel at high speed and below radar cover. Formed in Scotland, 197 Squadron was posted south to Tangmere, a village in West Sussex in southern England, to take part in these defensive operations. Secondly, early operations and trials had indicated that the low-level flying performance of the Typhoon, together with its fixed armament of four 20mm cannons, steadiness as a gun platform and load-carrying ability, rendered it the ideal fighter-bomber.

Success followed success, and by the autumn of 1943, more than sixty German raiders had been brought down and eighteen squadrons of typhoons were operating, mostly (including 197 Sqdn) as fighter-bombers. In this role, they carried two 500-lb bombs, one under each wing; in mid-July 1943 this was increased to two 1000-lb bombs. With its major engine problems now solved and tail failures much reduced, the Typhoon was chosen as the premier ground attack aircraft for the 2nd Tactical Air Force, which was being formed to provide support for the British and Canadian armies in the forthcoming invasion of Europe.

175 Squadron Typhoon being fitted with bombs at Westhampnett, West Sussex, UK, in late 1943. Photo © Fox Photos
257 Squadron with Typhoon at Warmwell, Dorset, UK, May 1942. Photo: Charles E. Brown © RAF Museum

On D-Day, the RAF and RCAF fielded twenty squadrons of Typhoons, some of which were among the first over the beachhead. In the following weeks, they played a vital role in the battle for Normandy, establishing a well-earned reputation for fast and accurate close support. By this time most Typhoons were carrying rockets rather than bombs although a number of squadrons, 197 included, retained the latter weapon. 197 Squadron was part of 146 Wing, which soon gained a reputation for devastating attacks, orchestrating its five rocket and bomb-armed squadrons to maximum effect on “pin-point” targets – particularly the German army and Gestapo headquarters. By the end of the war the Squadron, along with all the other Typhoon squadrons, had followed the Allied armies deep into Germany, where it was to remain until it was disbanded in August 1945.

Text by Chris Thomas